It’s the morning of January 3rd 2012.
The day before, I’d been on the phone asking a woman if I could come to her house to view a pup I’d seen online – the cutest photo of her sat on a chair looking down as if trying to figure out how to reach the floor – with a view to leave a deposit if I chose to take her on and to come back in a few days after that to bring her home.
My parents don’t know what’s happening.
They’re about to go to France on the 4th, so I’m waiting until the 5th before I bring her back if I decide it’s right.
She’s a husky/malamute/rough collie. I’ve worked with rescue dogs most of my adult life, but I know that huskies can be a tough breed (at least, I’m told that by husky owners), so as beautiful as she is I don’t know if I’m right for her until we meet.
I drive an hour down the motorway to the Wirral, just a mile or so from where my first fiancé lived.
On the drive there I run through memories of driving to my fiancé’s house to go on adventures or bring her back to Manchester.
I’m driving through the past and the future and the present all at once.
The most significant part of my past (with the first love of my life – someone who taught me how to love) with the most significant part of my future (with the love of my life to come – someone who would go on to completely define me and teach me so much about the world), both fused into one in that journey – the most significant journey of my past, present and future.
I arrive at the house and ring the doorbell.
The lady is expecting me and welcomes me in. We chat for a few moments as three dogs run around us.
Then there’s a tumbling sound coming down the stairs.
A light brown/red and white pup scurries in and runs around me once as I stand there, before sitting down by my right foot.
As I look down, she looks up and flashes me the biggest, cutest grin I’ve ever seen.
The lady and I look back at each other. She says, “well, I think she’s made her mind up.”
I went there to decide if I was going to get a pup.
That’s not at all how it worked.
I went there and a pup decided she was going to get me.
That one moment redefined how I deal with dogs. It defined the relationship we would have together.
I wasn’t getting a dog.
I’d never again think of dogs as creatures that we have and look after.
It was the start of a relationship.
In two days time I wouldn’t be picking up a dog.
I’d be bringing a member of my family home, and spending my life loving them.
The lady asks if I’ve thought of a name for her.
I tell her I have, I’ve been thinking about it for a while. It’s “Cadagan”.
She flashed me an odd look. It’s a strange name.
I picked it because it’s unique and because it sounds fairly celtic. I thought I made it up.
I’d find out later that it’s actually a Welsh name.
More than that, it’s the name of a Welsh prince who invaded England – a celtic hero.
Oddly fitting for a pup born in the Wirral.
I go to hold her paws, and the lady looks oddly at me again, but Cadagan looks happy. She isn’t trying to get away or bite me. She’s just looking into my eyes and smiling.
I already know we’re going to be together. I know she’s chosen this – and she’ll confirm it in two days time when I pick her up and carry her out of the house to my van with no protest, just absolute comfort in my arms and never once looking back. Just snuggling up to me.
The entire future of my life from this moment is set. She is in my heart and always will be, forever.
I bring this moment up because it is the 8 year anniversary of our meeting, but also because this blog is about grief, and grief begins the moment you meet the person you love. Your entire life together and everything it entails – including the grief of loss – begins exactly at that moment.
And that moment is one of pure unadulterated joy and companionship.
During my period of grief, 2 of the 4 “stages/phases” have stuck out bold and clear as I’ve bounced between them both, bargaining and anger.
One that seemed noticeably absent was denial. I began to wonder if this was something so universal in grief, and if so why wasn’t I experiencing it?
But then it hit me: I’ve been going through denial all along, and still am.
Denial isn’t just when you consciously and overtly believe and express how the one you love can’t possibly be dead, as it’s always portrayed in films and tv shows.
Everyone goes through it, but for most of us it is something so subtle we might not recognise it for what it is.
Ever since I lost my pup, I’ve had moments where I wake up and think the blurry mound of clothes on the floor in the dim morning light is her – sometimes my mind even thinks it sees a tail wagging for a moment.
I quickly come to and realise it’s not, but what my brain is doing is going through that denial stage.
It’s the moments when I’m finishing work and half wait around to find her so we can go home.
It’s the times I don’t want to go home because she won’t be there, as if that will stop it being true – or when I don’t want to leave work without her even when I know that’s impossible now.
It’s the moments I’m walking along and look down to my side expecting to see her, even though I know she’s not going to be there.
It’s the times I fall on my knees by my bed crying uncontrollably and hug my duvet because I just want to hug her.
It’s why I haven’t cleaned my room for a month because I get to come home and still smell something of her, and I have nothing else but that smell – fittingly the scent that meant so much to her – to remember her by.
It’s why even as my home life is collapsing and I need to find somewhere new to live tomorrow, I can’t leave, precisely because that room is the only place I still smell her.
It’s the times I ask the wind “why aren’t you here, my sweetheart?”
It’s also the times I’m putting off dealing with the trauma of her death. Dealing with losing her is taking all my energy, and in response I’m often putting off going through that moment she died in my arms so unexpectedly.
It’s part of her death that my mind is trying to deny at times because dealing with the loss is hard enough, but going back through that one moment will just destroy me.
You may think you’re not experiencing denial while you grieve because you know they’re gone and you’re not pretending they’ll come back.
But you are going through it, every time your brain thinks you see them out of the corner of your eye, or when you’re doing something you used to do together and for just a moment you stop to wait for them.
Denial comes in many different forms. It’s not just someone disbelieving their loved one is dead, or continuing their daily routine as if they’re still alive. It’s often more subtle than that Hollywood trope.
It also underpins a lot of your bargaining and anger, which is why when the “stages” of grief were incorrectly categorised as actual “stages” through a linear process that you go through, it was the first stage.
We now know better about how all those “stages” occur sometimes simultaneously, sometimes out of the original sequence, but that they are features of grief rather than the structure of grief.
We know now that you don’t begin by denying the loss, then bargaining for it not happen, then be angry that it did, and then accepting it. Rather, you do actually go through all of those processes, but in no general order and you don’t magically finish with one “stage” and get to the other.
But back to denial:
You may consciously know they’re gone, but your subconscious hasn’t yet accepted it.
You still want them to be around, and you’ve loved and been with them for so long that your brain isn’t yet able to process the world for you without them being there – it’s why your brain keeps
inserting them in your vision, desperately trying to form them out of abstract images and movements in your periphery.
Your brain is trying to cope with rewriting the inputs from the world around it in which they no longer physically exist.
Even if you think you aren’t living through the denial stage, because it’s not what you were taught it to be, you are. When you lose someone you love it takes time for you to mentally live in a world where they are no longer physically here.
It doesn’t look like what you’re told, but it is something you will go through in some form.
Just remember that denial isn’t always what you think it is, but it’s healthy. It’s part of your brain coming to terms with everything and with the loss.
I’m sat in the beer garden where the appearance of things going wrong began.
That’s so different from where they actually began to go wrong, because that source is something I’ll never know (and what makes the process of grief so difficult).
My phone had officially died on me the night before, and today I bought a laptop (to replace the one that died around a year ago), because I had a replacement phone already ordered and on its way.
At the table, my love whimpers.
I think I’ve just done something stupid like not extinguishing a cigarette butt, and she’s stepped on it.
I check her over.
No sign of anything.
She’s licking her paw but soon stops.
We leave the pub garden and she’s not even limping.
But from this day on, she will begin to lick and bite at her paw sporadically and appear to be distressed.
I literally just stubbed my cigarette out whilst typing this and checked she wasn’t under the table at the time, despite her being dead for over a week.
But back to that day….
We go back home and nothing seems wrong beyond her licking her paw occasionally, which I put down to her have an injury that has happened today.
The kicker is, that probably was what happened, or it probably wasn’t and it was a symptom of an underlying issue that needed to be addressed. But I’ll go on to find out that neither truth, nor my response to it, could have saved the one I love.
I’ll then spend every day after she died trying to understand that fact.
Nothing at that point looked life threatening for her.
What killed her may not have even had anything to do with that.
But I love her and at that point she was uncomfortable and I wanted to help her, and the past two months began at that moment.
And also, for any “wannabe vets” reading this: I’ve gone through it all.
I’ve looked at all of her symptoms, and everything I *could* have done to save the one I love, and there’s nothing.
I’ll talk more about this and what it means for the process of grief another day, but suffice to say I’ve killed myself over and again concerning how I could have saved her – and especially concerning identifying what killed her. I’ve even gone through the thought processes of how I might have killed her – and I’ll get to that emotional black hole another day.
Here’s what I’ve found out:
Whatever took her was something that even trained vets wouldn’t have spotted, and even if they had her survival rate would have been 1% or less. In fact, it’s something they DIDN’T spot. If they didn’t, how could I?
I’m not saying any of this to find absolution.
It’s actually comforting to know you could have done something, because you can learn how to save someone next time and you can tell yourself that the fate of the person you love was always in your hands.
That’s what we always want to believe. It just isn’t true, and dealing with that fact is so difficult that I’m still comparing her symptoms online to see if I can understand why she’s gone.
Breaking news: that will never happen.
I still do it, because it is actually a healthy part of the grieving process, as long as it doesn’t become an obsession – and everyone will do it even when we know there is no answer we can find – because that’s exactly what you do when someone you love dies suddenly and unexpectedly (especially in your arms).
You want to know why, because you love them.
And this is one of the hardest parts of grief: you will explore every avenue EVEN IF YOU KNOW YOU WON’T FIND AN ANSWER AND EVEN IF YOU KNOW YOU KNOW THAT.
Being forearmed about this part of grief can’t prevent you going through it. You will put yourself through it, and no amount of people telling you it’s natural and how you don’t need to will stop you from doing it (and don’t listen to people saying you don’t need to, because as well meaning as they’re being, it just makes you feel worse).
It’s not a bug of the grieving process. It’s a feature.
It’s a testament to how much you loved that person and how much losing them affects you.
Remember: you’re grieving for a reason (for the best reason ever, because it is a process all about love – and never forget the fact that grief only exists because of the love you have and have experienced), and that process will and must happen whether you understand the process or not.
And these are the important lessons to learn about grief:
1) Understanding the process doesn’t ever make it easier or faster to go through;
2) This process is about love, and because of that you should always remember that what you’re going through is a healthy process. You may need support to prevent that process becoming unhealthy, and if you do you should feel ok about jumping into that support. But the fact that you are going through this process is a healthy thing.
In fact, what you’re going through is a healing process. And just as not all physical wounds can heal in a healthy manner and may need professional attention, not all emotional wounds can heal in a healthy manner and may need professional attention.
If you cut your hand, it’s natural for it to hurt and for your body to try to heal that wound. But sometimes your body can’t do it correctly, for a variety of reasons way beyond your control.
Likewise, when you lose somebody you love, it’s natural for it to hurt and for your body to try to heal that wound. But sometimes your body can’t do it correctly, for a variety of reasons beyond your control.
It’s not the pain and the process that’s a problem. It’s actually the only path to healing. It’s where that process malfunctions and ends up doing more damage that’s the problem.
But even with that, always feel able to seek help.
After all, who would suffer having an arm cut off without asking someone to stop the bleeding and clean the wound, even when they know their red blood cells are already trying to clot and stop them bleeding out?
A grim picture, but don’t ever think that grief can’t become as grim and fatal as physical pain.
People die from grief.
It’s necessary for you to understand what you’re going through and why, and why it’s always correct and necessary to seek and get help through it.
You’re going through this process because you lost someone you love. Not because you should also be lost to those who love – and will ever in the future get to love – you.
I’ll talk more later on about how guilt is a part of bargaining in grief, and about how grief is a process that we have evolved in order to retain love for those we lost without feeling we’re betraying them when we finally accept they’re gone – a process we’ve developed in order to deal with losing a loved one whilst keeping them with us always, as we always wanted to, and becoming able to continue living in a world that no longer involves their physical involvement in our lives.
Suffice to say, you can never – even with all the knowledge of the grieving process available to you – not go through it when you lose your love.
It will happen. And for those of you who understand the process, that’s especially difficult to deal with. But knowing psychology doesn’t inoculate you from its affects, just as knowing how pathogens work doesn’t inoculate you from the flu.
It will happen.
You’ll feel shit.
You’ll feel as bad as those without a scientific understanding of what’s going on.
You’ll probably feel worse because that scientific understanding doesn’t make it better.
There isn’t a one glove fits all to any wound, especially grief. Because grief is a very specific process that you have to endure, and is inherently painful to endure no matter how much you understand it, because losing people you love hurts and is meant to hurt. It wouldn’t hurt if you didn’t love them.
Cut my hand and put iodine on it to clean it, and I know what’s happened and how much it will hurt SCIENTIFICALLY. But I’ll still run around and scream and cry no matter how much I understand what’s happening.
Grief is a healing process. Don’t shy from it. Don’t feel bad for going through it. Don’t ever feel that you shouldn’t request help to get through it.
We have an underlying understanding in our society that if you lose someone you love, who’s a human, it’s a big deal.
But if you lose a dog, it should at most take you a couple of days to get over it.
But that’s not true, as many dog companions would tell you.
For one thing, I lost my companion right next to me in a sudden and tragic incident. An incident that will traumatise me for the rest of my life, because I literally watched someone I love die within seconds next to me with nothing I could do to stop it.
But for another thing, I spent literally every minute of every hour with my pup. I spent more time by her side than any parents spend with their kids.
I was never separated from her for years. I took jobs that allowed us to always be together, even whilst I worked.
It’s a fair argument that your offspring mean so much to you as to make loss unbearable. But so is the argument where you spend every hour of every day being with the one you love.
This is NOT to say that I loved my pup more than people love their kids. On the contrary, it is to dispel the myth that those of us with canine companions can’t possibly know the love and loss of a family member, or justify our feelings after they’re gone as such.
Imagine always being with the one you love, 24/7 – literally, no hours off.
Then you understand who I lost, the relationship I had, and why it hurts to lose her so much.
Neither grief is superior or inferior.
We love who we love. And when they leave us, we grieve them.
That’s all that matters – that we love them and grieve them.
I woke up 2 hours before work. I was still half an hour late.
Dragging myself out of bed isn’t easy when it’s cold at the best of times.
I’ve cried everyday since it happened. And not just a bit of a well-up. I’ve sobbed uncontrollably.
I’ve held the covers of my bed, my knees on the floor, and kissed my duvet as I hold it as if it’s her. Like I used to kneel at the bed and cuddle her and kiss her before I got her up for the day.
It’s nearly a week and I’m still crying uncontrollably for my love.
I stood at the gate of work having to will myself in, like I had to physically force myself back into my bedroom the day she left.
I get hugs from my workmates. It’s a testament to how we’re not just colleagues, but family.
More than that, they all send her their love, which shows how she touched everyone she met.
She wasn’t just a dog. She was part of their family too.
On the board I see I might be driving the van in which she died next to me.
It all comes back, but I don’t want the first thing my friends deal with in the morning to be me collapsing in grief.
It’s the first day I’m back.
I don’t want them to start the day with a breakdown.
It’s not on purpose. It’s just up on the board naturally. It’s the job I’d have been doing if none of this happened.
There’s a note on the calendar to call Phil.
We have a conversation where we talk about what’s going on today, what I need and what I can do and what jobs we need to do.
He coaxed it out of me that I’m not ready for that yet, and rearranged the day.
I know I’ve got to face it soon.
I just can’t now.
I was going to bite it, but he pulls it out of me that I can’t.
It’s not just grieving for a lost dog. It’s not even just grieving for a lost loved one and my kid.
That’s where it happened.
In that vehicle, next to me as I was driving, she dropped dead without warning.
She was ok, apart from being sick. She sat up next to me and looked fine.
And then she wasn’t.
Then she died.
In less time than it takes me to physically say that small sentence.
I have no way of understanding that moment, let alone dealing with it.
It’s the trauma of that moment that’s hitting me, and I’ve had it on loop since it happened.
He doesn’t want me near power tools or driving without supervision. Not just because I could have an accident, but because he doesn’t want to put me in that situation.
We agree on a job that needs doing that I can face – building a set of shelves for the back office.
I’ve been trying to get round to it for months, but other duties have got in the way.
It’s a job that should take half a day, at most.
I barely finish in time to go home.
I’m not to work with cutting tools today, for my own safety.
I need to build some shelves.
My timber manager cuts them to my specifications.
I can’t cut them, but I’m eager to get things done as fast as we can, so I labour as a chippy’s mate like I’ve never done before.
Every moment of the day I’m reminded of her: running around the yard, lying in the canteen floor, sitting in the office, skanking food during lunch (she always tried to tell people I never fed her).
Then I get reminded of her in a different way.
I put some cut pieces of timber on a tarp covered table with a pool of water on it, and the water moves to where the wood lies, and it reminds me of her vomit on the seat as we drove just before she died, and the both of us trying to keep her away from it until I can stop and clean it up.
I stop and begin to breakdown.
I pick up some 8×1 pieces of timber and they weigh as much as she did when I carried her out of the van.
I stop and begin to breakdown.
I put some timber on the woodwork table, and I remember laying her down in the vets.
I stop and begin to breakdown.
I push the timber on the table, and remember my hands rubbing her belly whilst I was on the phone to my sister, telling her “she’s so cold, she’s so cold” over and over again.
I stop and begin to breakdown.
I make my way out for a cigarette.
All I can see is that day.
The last sound she made was a whimper, after she collapsed and I pulled her up whilst driving.
I need to hear her being happy.
I put on a video of her playing in the snow, and one of her running in the park as a puppy, coming back for strokes behind the ear.
I stop and breakdown.
I go back in.
Our life together runs on loop.
The moment I lost her runs on loop.
At around lunchtime I’m asked if I can do a delivery – not in the vehicle it happened in.
I don’t think I can drive safely, but before I even say anything it’s sorted out and somebody else is stepping in.
(I don’t know this and watch someone load the vehicle it happened in, thinking “it’s ok, they don’t know, but shit this will be hard”, to then find out they’ve got it sorted).
Throughout the day I see her.
I’m hyperventilating and I’ve not eaten.
I see her walking next to me, running to have a wee in the yard, waiting for someone to throw a stick or play with a ball.
Every time I go to the yard to get timber, I feel her walking next to me. Playing in the puddles and waiting for me to kick the water so we could play together.
And I see her as a puppy, walking next to me in the woods, always trying to be near me.
And I see her collapsing.
And I see her in my arms as I run her into the vets.
And I see her on the table as I can’t stop caressing her in the way she loved even though she was already gone.
And I see her cradled in my arms as I stand in her grave and lower her down to rest in peace.
And I finish the job.
I’ve only had a total of 30 minutes break, even though my boss said take all the breaks you need.
But it’s a job that took twice as long.
But I’ve finished it.
The shelves are up.
It’s time to go home.
The tree crews are coming back, and I’m getting hugs and handshakes and messages of love for both her and myself.
I get a card from the folks in the office.
I try not to stop and breakdown.
My friend stops me before I go and asks how I am.
She’s been checking on me throughout the day.
I tell her it’s been tough, and that whilst I have to go home I neither want to leave work, stay at work or go back home.
I assure her I’ll be safe.
I drive home and park up, and I get out of the car and walk.
I walk like a zombie, and every moment of the day she died gets replayed in my head, and I stop at a pub and I bawl like a child and I can’t stop.
It feels like yesterday.
I’m still trying to stop it happening.
In my head I’m still trying to stop it happening and I can’t, and I can’t stop crying.
I know I don’t just have grief for a lost loved one. I have ptsd from what happened.
I don’t know how to get through this.
I just know I miss my love.
I recently lost a companion who defined my life.
It happened very suddenly and in a very traumatic way.
Every loss is different, because every relationship is different, but I thought I’d start a blog about dealing with both my loss and the trauma it involved – both to help me deal with it and to help others dealing with something similar.
The blog will start with my first day back at work.
It could have started with the day my love died next to me, but then it could have started with the day we first met.
On neither occasion was I ever in the mind to start this blog, but I thought I’d start this blog talking about the day that I started it.
I’ll always be going back to everything from the day we met to the day she died and beyond – and trying to pretend there is anything linear about the lives we live with our loved ones doesn’t actually fit with how grief works.
Grief is more…. Tralfamadorian.
It makes us paint a landscape where time is just another spatial dimension. And so where we dip into it – or often choose to drown ourselves in it – and even where we choose to begin to talk about it has little to do with chronology in its strictest sense.
We’re reliving the life of the person we lost, and we naturally begin that narrative at the point that we can begin that narrative.
We also naturally don’t dip into the narrative of a lost loved one in any chronological sense. Instead we dip in and out of our lives together, remembering moments of joy and tragedy, in a manner that has little regard with the sequence of events as they happened.
We live, through our grief, those moments in both a sequenced and causal way, but also – and most often – in a completely unsequenced path devoid of causality.
So why should I start this blog at any point other than the day I chose to start this blog? No other moment holds greater merit. No other moment claims proprietary in terms of narrative as I recall our life together. No other moment can be said to be more important to begin with. Because it’s not about grading moments by their importance. It’s about how we build our stories of those we loved throughout our process of grieving their loss.
No matter where I begin this story it probably won’t begin at the beginning, and nor will it continue linearly from there. It will begin where I begin it, and it will flutter around our lives together weaving the tapestry of a life that once made me whole.
So this blog starts at a certain point after my loved one has died. It doesn’t start at her death, nor does it start at her birth. But it will contain both points and everything in between.
Like a Tralfamadorian, both you and I shall experience her life and death and my dealing with the aftermath in a nonlinear way.
I lived with the love of my life, and she has been lost to me. So it goes.